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 Stephen DeStaebler  (1933 - 2011)

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Lived/Active: California/Missouri      Known for: monumental ceramic figure sculpture

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Interview with Stephen De Staebler, 1995
Copyright by Jessie Benton Evans

Jessie Benton Evans: Did you always want to be a sculptor?

Stephen De Staebler: I wanted to be an artist, but for reasons I'm not quite clear about, I went to a university with no art department. I had to major in my junior year, so I thought, "The closest thing to art is art history." Wrong. That's when I gained a first-hand understanding of the conflict between the hemispheres of the brain. Art history is essentially a linear discipline, and art-making is a right hemispheric function. It's like oil and water. My way out of the crisis in the first semester was to major in religion. It was wonderful and terrible. I learned about any number of religious experiences -- other people's -- and became extremely frustrated. In art it would be like being told, "Oh, how wonderful it is to pick up the brush and paint," but have no brush in your own hand. I graduated in '54, glad to get out, got drafted and was stationed in Germany for a year.

Evans: What led you to your early clay sculptures?

De Staebler: After the army, I worked for a while at Union Settlement House in New York. Then, at the University of California, Berkeley, in Peter Voulkos' class, I discovered clay as a great sculptural material. I got involved in bronze casting at that time, but found it was so labor-intensive that I would be spending nine hours in technical aspects for every one hour developing the form. Voulkos was and is an artist of the first rank, a great teacher who didn't hesitate to try something new. His class had a wide-open, free atmosphere which gave me the confidence to act impulsively. Each day, two dollies arrived from the mixer with 1000 pounds of clay. This gave me the immediate drive to try something big. You have this monumental challenge to make the clay stand up, to make this amorphous stuff take shape. I was cured overnight of my perfectionism which I had formerly expressed in fine stone carvings. It was the greatest relief I ever had.

Eans: What else influenced your work?

De Staebler: All during the 60's, I had ups and downs. I got excited about architecture and film. I learned tremendously from acknowledging these interests. In film making, my great passion was editing roll after roll of 16mm film, cutting and splicing to make short five minute works. For me, this brought to the forefront the alternative to classical monolithic form with one mass, one axis, one core, epitomized by the figure. Film making is the opposite approach, already established in painting and sculpture through collage and assemblage. It taught me to appreciate segments, elements and fragments as the building blocks of form which could be essentially monolithic like the figure, but with its genesis from parts. The next indirect experience I had at that time was building fired clay fragments of my sculpture into a hillside where we lived in California. If my sculpture didn't turn out right, I would end up cutting or breaking fired pieces into sections. Or I'd break unfired clay and fire the pieces, then break them some more, a decimating process, like cutting up film. I had no idea why or what I would do with these fragments, but felt, "These could be of great use." Several years later when this hillside house presented the inclined earth, I built my sculptural elements into it along with rocks and plants. By responding to this particular space, this incline, I learned in three dimensions how to put components together the way I put two-dimensional images together in film. On a flat lot, I wouldn't have had the same options to see this hillside almost as a vertical. Later in my work, it fed right into the procedure developed to make figures on an incline -- first laying the figure down and later standing it in a vertical position. The clay column or wedge form which received the disparate elements was the equivalent of the earth, with pieces looking like they'd been sliced out of a big section of earth. I never wanted to use clay in conventional ways, packed around an armature. So, I have a great appreciation for the associations that each artist discovers. No one else has had the same life experience.

Evans: Your early sculptures almost seem like geological formations.

De Staebler: My term is landscape sculpture. I carried in a very direct way the qualities clay has into my intentional form. This honest material comes from the earth, is earth and it generates an infinite range of expressions. Clay wants to slump, warp, crack, break and sheer off. When fired, it's hard but brittle. I was fascinated by and embraced all of these realities. They were tied to my childhood summers in southern Indiana, where a river wrapped around sandstone bluffs, eroding them with crevices and caves, with wind and water-worn surfaces. I like the Baroque because it had such excess which camouflaged the underlying form. A surface slab of clay has the quality of the Baroque, the underlying logic. On the surface, the events appear random and yet, in their totality, they form a structure. This is what landscape does. That's really where my landscape sculptures began -- giving structure, very precise, often geometric form.

Evans: When was the first time you began to introduce the human element back into landscape?

De Staebler: I started in the 60s. The figure wasn't popular. Abstract expressionism in the pure, non-objective sense was the ideal. The need to make figures kept pressing on me. I realized-that the figure was already in the landscape image -- the geometry of substructure would be the figure -- and I spent ten years extricating the figure from the ground, like digging up humanity after its extinction by abstract expressionists.

Working with the figure on its sculptural ground is like the figure/ground problem in painting, the relationship of the figure or object to the space around it. Abstract expressionism was maybe just another form of cubism, where if you break the image into enough pieces and then break the ground into enough pieces, you have something approaching that molecular soup that doesn't strictly separate the figure from its picture plane. I was struggling with the same relationship of figure/ground in sculpture. Then when I shifted from clay to bronze, I learned quickly that the reason I needed bronze was to separate the figure even further from the ground and let it stand on its own form, which isn't possible in clay. Bronze offers this great freedom to cantilever masses. When you vertically wedge a form in clay, it has massiveness at the base, like a triangle going to a small top. In bronze I can reverse it, having big, massive forms at the top of the figure, and the figure holding all this mass with an ankle.

Evans: When your figures stand they seem as if they are almost trying to leave the ground. They walk springing from their toes.

De Staebler: That was the release from gravity offered by the metal. The yearning was even more intense for me because the clay had been so gravity-vulnerable. It's like when you push your hand hard on a table, so gravity-intense, and then it floats up as the muscle contraction raises the arm on its own.

Evans: In the progression of your work, it seemed as if you were bringing man out of the earth almost as if you were God and you had drawn in the dust, man was formed, and he started out in fragments and became whole and walked. It also seemed post-human time, like discovering archaeological, fossilized remnants of man. Your work has simultaneous metaphors -- man being reborn from the dust, and your own rebirth also.

De Staebler: I felt I had to resurrect the figure in its own terms as if I hadn't any role to play in it. This is one of the legacies of abstract expressionism, the energy or spirit of expressionism. You don't want to make it look like human hands made it happen. The idea is to see events that happened. Pollock did this. Detaching yourself and allowing the process to call the main shots while controlling them to a certain degree behind the scenes is the ideal. Trying to make the figure come to life from a horizontal, essentially decimated state is what I was facing, not always consciously, trying to make the figure have a second life, standing again.

Evans: When you're sculpting a head, say "Cleft Face," is this primeval man or man destroyed -- deformed by modern life and trying to remain alive?

De Staebler: I'm healing a broken person even though the result looks like it's still broken. I feel more like a healer bringing a coherence and semblance of wholeness that has been lost in fragmentation.

Evans: Torso with Cleft Face and Walking Man #3 and #4 have red painted areas like wounds or blood.

De Staebler: It's not meant to be blood, but more as a concentration of energy, a feeling center.

Evans: Your early standing, walking figures don't have arms.

De Staebler: Many newer works have arms -- often in tandem with a wing -- a counterbalance, of one arm with a wing. I've only done one sculpture with two arms -- a crucifix.

Evans: I'm intrigued by the arm coming so late, especially since your whole sculpture process uses your arms and, of course, if we hadn't had our thumb and forefinger, we wouldn't have been the mechanical geniuses we are.

DeStaebler. That meddlesome thumb! I think armlessness might be symbolic of man's state at this time -- that we might have been armless in our inability to form our own destiny or function. I wrote a poem once that went If God had wanted, he would have given us wings instead of arms. A wing is very much like an arm. A bird has arms. I somehow equate the arm to a life of doing, and armless life to one of being. The poem ended by saying How much more satisfying to soar and float and fly than to make things. This is equating essences with being, approximations with doing.

Evans: Your works have a contained, compacted, condensed energy, almost atomic. To me, this energy emanates from a piece because the artist uses the deepest parts of himself, and this intensity goes beyond representation or just manneristic form. This energy makes primitive art, and all art, art. It taps into the elemental.

De Staebler: The artist must get quiet and let that energy speak, and the viewer must become quiet to receive it. The problem with so much viewing is that it's busy, aimless viewing. We're in such a hyped-up, work-sensation world now, we don't sit quietly long enough to respond to low radiations of energy. It's important to keep the alternative to television and movie bombardments alive. Museums are struggling for their collective existence because the times are so negligent of this experience. But the visual arts, painting and sculpture, will never be obsolete because they require the viewer to initiate the experience. The viewer controls time. In television and film, you're caught and controlled in another person's time. It's an entirely different experience. What I like about the visual arts is the great freedom: coming in and out of your work or other people's work on your own terms.

Evans: I feel both the beginning of the world and post-holocaust resurrection in your work.

De Staebler: Interpretation is the purview of the viewer. If I had that in mind, I'd be an illustrator. That's the difference between illustration and art. Illustration starts with a conscious idea and fleshes it out. Art starts with an embryonic impulse and takes a birthing process and then you see what it is. I never thought of my work as archaeological until viewing it later. Then, I thought if I'd stayed in art history, I probably would have become an archeologist. I could dig -- very satisfying.

Evans: You would have worked manually with the earth, like sculpting.

De Staebler: I see that what happens in a person's life is a strange confluence of experiences -- kind of fascinating. My need to be an artist sustained itself through a lot of enticing alternatives. Ultimately it comes down to what you really need to balance, and in that sense, artists can't be made. If you don't have the need, you can become a skilled designer or illustrator. But that's a different function than the artist, if you accept the notion that an artist has feelings or ideas that are not external, that are present only in the inner world asking to be brought into some visible form.

Jessie Benton Evans is an artist and writer, named for her great grandmother, early Arizona painter Jessie Benton Evans. She lives in Arizona.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist:

Stephen De Staebler, Sculptor of Bronze and Clay, Dies at 78

Published: May 24, 2011

Stephen De Staebler, a sculptor whose fractured, dislocated human figures gave a modern voice and a sense of mystery to traditional realist forms, died on May 13 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 78.

The cause was complications of cancer, Jill Ringler, his studio archivist, said.

Mr. De Staebler found his medium when he met the pioneering ceramist Peter Voulkos at the University of California in the late 1950s. Impressed by the expressive possibilities of clay, he began making landscape-like floor works.

In the late 1970s he began coaxing distressed, disjointed humanoid forms from large, vertical clay columns. Colored with powdered oxides and fired in a kiln, they presented potent images of broken, struggling humanity.

“We are all wounded survivors, alive but devastated selves, fragmented, isolated — the condition of modern man,” he recently told Timothy A. Burgard, a curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who is organizing a De Staebler retrospective. “Art tries to restructure reality so that we can live with the suffering.”

Stephen Lucas De Staebler was born on March 24, 1933, in St. Louis.  While working toward a bachelor’s degree in religion at Princeton, he made art on the side and spent a summer at Black Mountain College studying painting with Ben Shahn and Robert Motherwell.  After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1954, he served with the Army in West Germany. He enrolled at Berkeley intending to teach art in the public schools but, after receiving his teaching credentials, earned a master’s degree in art in 1961.

He exhibited widely, particularly in the Bay Area, where he taught for many years at the San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State University.

In 1988 Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., organized the traveling exhibition “Stephen De Staebler: The Figure.”  Reviewing the show at the Neuberger Museum of Art at the State University of New York, Purchase, Michael Brenson, in The New York Times, noted the enigmatic, disjointed nature of Mr. De Staebler’s art.

“In his human comedy, wholeness has no meaning,” he wrote. “His men and women — when it is clear that they are men or women — seem like pieces of a puzzle without a key.” By this time, Mr. De Staebler had begun working in bronze as well as clay.

“Matter and Spirit: Stephen De Staebler,” his retrospective, is scheduled to open at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in January 2012.

Mr. De Staebler’s first wife, the former Dona Curley, died in 1996. He is survived by his wife Danae Mattes; a daughter, Arianne, of Berkeley; and two sons, Jordan, of Oakland, Calif., and David, of Bishop, Calif.

“The human figure is the most loaded of all forms because we live in one,” Mr. De Staebler told Mr. Burgard, the curator. “The figure obsesses not just artists, but human beings. It’s our prison. It’s what gives us life and gives us death.”

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Stephen DeStaebler is best known for his fired clay or bronze sculptures that reflect nature and figures. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1933, DeStaebler grew up in the Midwest, where he received his early academic training.

He attended Princeton University and graduated with honors in Religion 1954. During the summers as an undergraduate, he also studied with Robert Motherwell and Ben Shahn at Black Mountain College. Although his main focus was on his academic studies, he began making stained glass for a short time during college.

After he graduated from Princeton University, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Italy. In 1957, he moved to California where he enrolled in the University of California Berkeley as a graduate student in sculpture.

He studied under Peter Voulkos in 1961 and enhanced his appreciation for the medium of clay and it's natural tendencies and limitations. DeStaebler embraced the evolving state of the clay, letting it form itself within his designs. His sculptures took on a monumental scale not previously seen in ceramics due to the size of the kilns. He built a large kiln to accommodate his structures that were a departure from the common monolithic clay forms of the time. His sculptures became flatter and lower, blending in with the terrain, becoming part of the landscape.

DeStaebler considers himself a 'landscape sculptor', although his artwork incorporates abstract figures and structures.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, he has worked on many commissioned pieces, which he created in his studio in Albany, California. Some of his public commissions include, the Farnsworth Memorial Sculpture, Oakland Museum (1969); Water Sculpture for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, Concord Station, Concord, California (1972); Seating Environment, University of California, Berkeley (1970); and Left-Sided Angel, bronze, Iowa State University, Ames (1986).

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